Ptolemy’s Ghost

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We looked at the stars again. I don’t know their names and no matter how many times I read about them or someone explains them to me, that part of my brain simply doesn’t operate well. I know Orion because of the old Orion Motion Pictures; that’s it. It is the same part of the brain that doesn’t allow me to remember names of students or division meeting times. And the truth is, I don’t need to know any of that information. I know the faces of my students; I see hoards of faculty heading toward the same room around lunchtime and I follow them in, and I look up at the brilliant miracle of science spread out across the heavens. Who needs names?

Some nights the temperatures are freezing, but that is usually because of no haze or cloud cover so the stars are even more brilliant. With the small scope we can see the rings of Saturn and four of Jupiter’s moons. We’ve also seen Venus and Mars, and a herd of constellations that start with a P or a C, I forget. One of them is Pleiades, I know that. They are the seven sisters, which alone made me shiver and go back inside.

I do know the big dipper when I see it, and once I saw the Southern Cross a long time ago on a continent far, far away. I assume the really bright star I see often in the south is either Alpha Centauri or Vega, but I really don’t care one way or the other. I’m not going there, teaching astronomy, or trying to impress anyone at all. I did take an astronomy class in college, and on one cold night we took a powerful telescope to the hill inside the cemetery and took turns scanning the sky. When it was my turn I said, “This is out of focus; it’s all fuzzy,” to which the professor looked and exclaimed, “Holy Shit you found a nebula!”  My roommate said, “The Marvel Comics alien superhero??” The professor laughed then told me I didn’t discover one but I did point the telescope toward a fuzzy patch someone else had discovered. Cool. I’m not unromantic—I wasn’t oblivious to the idea that I was staring deep into space, across billions of years ago toward eternities from now.

I can’t wait for clear nights at home when we can see stars in the darkness across the bay or the river, but what I enjoy looking at the most is the moon. I never tire of staring at the craters, especially when it is a half-moon, which makes the craters so much easier to see than when the moon is full. Michael will point the telescope toward Saturn’s rings or Jupiter’s moons and I’ll say, “Yeah, nice, now let’s look at our moon again.” He always obliges, but I understand why it isn’t as important to him as it is me.

In the late sixties I was just another kid like so many caught up in the space race, following the Apollo missions as they came close to the moon, orbiting it, sending back images of its surface. I had a brown jacket with a NASA patch sewed on the sleeve and an American flag on the other. I knew every aspect of space travel—the speed needed to exit the earth’s gravitational pull, how the Saturn V rocket was built, the space inside, the Space outside, the purpose of each mission, and the names of every single astronaut.

I turned nine in July of ’69 and we just moved into our new home. I remember my sister sitting on the floor and I joined her as we watched Walter Cronkite dictate the actions of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin while Michael Collins orbited above them. The next evening I remember going outside and looking up at the sky, knowing they were up there and wanting more than anything to go there someday.

That dream faded, but not the spirit of the dream. Maybe because it was the first serious ambition I remember having other than wanting to be a baseball player or an ice cream man. I wanted to train at NASA and be an astronaut. Of course. It wasn’t because I liked the science—my brother is the scientist in the family. No, it was because I like the ambition of it all, the pursuit of something seemingly impossible, literally otherworldly. Even at nine it meant to me that despite the turmoil of the sixties we still kept our eye on the ball and refused to believe we could not get there. I am not sure the succeeding generations have a comparable ambition, at least not one as grand. Mars? Someday. Not yet.

So my son and I often go out and look at the stars and the full moon, and whenever I do I have hope again, despite the problems with the Russians (like in ’69), or bad race relations (like in ’69), or protests on campuses (like in ’69). It seems we have lost that spark, just a bit, and that’s okay for people like me who had that time, had that foundation of combining dreams with plans, ambitions with determination, like NASA did when I was young. But I wonder what the nine-year-old’s today turn to for that lesson of hope, that example of integrity and focus. What field do children’s fathers bring them to just before sundown to sit on lawn chairs and wait for what happens?

Humanity needs something larger than itself to shoot for. We can over-focus on tragedies and deceptions, leaving us the impression that today’s headlines are the beginning and ending of our existence. In the midst of such madness, striving toward an almost impossible ambition provides the perspective necessary to keep moving forward, to keep hope, to keep enough integrity to recognize we can do better than this. The greatest minds combined in the history of humanity have not yet figured it all out; but the pursuit itself was their purpose. We have focused too close to home for our goals, aiming merely to achieve; what a disappointing ambition.

Maybe too many people think everything’s already been discovered. I’m sure others felt like that every step of the way from the Dark Ages through the Renaissance. And for the record, it wasn’t Galileo who first mapped the moon after seeing it through his telescope. That inaccurate historical note goes to Englishman Thomas Harriot who mapped the moon in July of 1609 several months before Galileo; 360 years nearly to the day before my sister and I sat on the floor and watched Neil Armstrong step down onto the lunar surface.

Can we reach the stars someday? Hell, I can’t even name the damn things, but I’m glad someone smarter than me is mapping the way. It was U.S. astronomer and pioneer of Dark Matter, Vera Rubin, who noted the discovery of the far reaches of space more than anything else should teach us humility. We all could use a little humility these days, some reminder that we are at best merely guests here, moving through, making room for others hundreds of years from now to look up at the skies and marvel at the nebula, be amazed again at the craters on the moon.

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